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Pigford v. Veneman

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 8, 2013

TIMOTHY PIGFORD, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TOM VILSACK, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture, Defendant. CECIL BREWINGTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TOM VILSACK, Secretary, United States Department of Agriculture, Defendant.

OPINION

PAUL L. FRIEDMAN United States District Judge

Claimant Maurice G. McGinnis prevailed on a so-called “Track A” claim in this case but refused to cash the award check that was issued to him, insisting that he had requested to have his claim arbitrated under “Track B” instead. He now asks the Court to order that his claim be heard anew under Track B. Having carefully considered Mr. McGinnis’ motion to enforce the Consent Decree, the government’s opposition, and the available record, the Court concludes that Mr. McGinnis is entitled to the relief that he seeks. The Court therefore will grant his motion.[1]

I. BACKGROUND

The Consent Decree negotiated by the parties to this case and approved by the Court in April 1999 created a mechanism for resolving the individual claims of class members outside the traditional litigation process. See Pigford v. Glickman, 185 F.R.D. 82, 94 (D.D.C. 1999). Class members were permitted to choose between two claims procedures, known as Track A and Track B. Track A claims were decided by a third-party neutral known as the Adjudicator and resulted in awards of $50, 000 in monetary damages to those claimants able to meet a minimal burden of proof. See id. at 103. Track B claims, which were decided by a different neutral known as the Arbitrator, imposed no cap on damages but required claimants to prove their claims by a more demanding preponderance-of-the-evidence standard in one-day mini-trials. See id. at 106.

Maurice McGinnis completed a Pigford claim form in August 1999 with the assistance of an attorney. See McGinnis Decl., Ex. 1. He opted to pursue a Track A claim, although his claim form suggests that he harbored some confusion or indecision about that choice.[2] Later the same month, Mr. McGinnis attests, he telephoned the Claims Facilitator and asked for his claim to be processed under Track B instead of Track A. McGinnis Decl. ¶ 2. Although not part of the record or essential to the resolution of this motion, the Court has been informed that the Claims Facilitator has telephone records showing that Mr. McGinnis called the Facilitator on August 31, 1999 regarding a switch to Track B and was instructed to send a letter to the Facilitator. Mr. McGinnis then wrote a letter to the Claims Facilitator, dated September 1, 1999, that states in part: “Per our phone conversation, this is to confirm that under the current status of this settlement, I have indeed filed my claim and/or petition under ‘Plan B’ instead of Plan A as originally thought.” Id., Ex. 2. A copy of this letter provided by Mr. McGinnis shows a Claims Facilitator date-stamp of September 7, 1999, indicating that the letter was received. See id.

Although Mr. McGinnis requested in writing that his claim be switched from Track A to Track B, and although the Claims Facilitator appears to have received his letter, the Facilitator nevertheless sent his claim form to the Adjudicator for a Track A determination, rather than to the Arbitrator for a Track B determination.

In June 2000, the Adjudicator denied Mr. McGinnis’ claim, based on a lack of supporting evidence and on perceived discrepancies between his allegations of discrimination and the documentary record. See Opp., Ex. 1.

In 2001, Mr. McGinnis petitioned for Monitor review of the Adjudicator’s denial of his claim. See McGinnis Decl., Ex. 3. Under the Consent Decree, the Monitor was empowered to direct the Adjudicator to reexamine a claim determination where the Monitor concluded “that a clear and manifest error has occurred in the . . . adjudication . . . of the claim and has resulted or is likely to result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Pigford v. Glickman, Civil Action No. 97-1978, Consent Decree ¶ 12(b)(iii) (D.D.C. Apr. 14, 1999).

Mr. McGinnis’ petition to the Monitor, which was prepared by Pigford class counsel — specifically Alexander J. Pires, Jr. — and not the attorney who had assisted him with his claim form, argued that the Adjudicator’s denial of his claim represented a clear and manifest error because Mr. McGinnis “mistakenly chose the wrong Track and the facilitator failed to correct it.” McGinnis Decl., Ex. 3, at 1. The petition further explained:

Because Claimant thought he was proceeding under [Track B] he thought he would have a later opportunity in the process to furnish the details of his claim. Thus, his claim form omitted some further allegation[s] of the numerous incidents of discrimination he encountered. Claimant, therefore, requests that his claim be remanded to the facilitator to be placed into Track B.

Id.[3] “In the alternative, ” Mr. McGinnis requested “that his claim be remanded to the Adjudicator for readjudication” under Track A. Id. In support of this alternative form of relief, the petition contended that “[t]he record before the Adjudicator was incomplete because of an error/miscommunication between Claimant and the individual assisting him with his claim.” Id.

It continued:

Due to above referenced error/miscommunication between Claimant and the individual assisting him with his claim form, the original claim form failed to give all of the years the discriminatory conduct took place and all of the correct details surrounding the discriminatory conduct. Claimant was under the impression that his case would be handled under Track B, he did not delve into all of ...

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